I do not think it is controversial to state that this has been one of the most unusual professional basketball seasons on record. Other top candidates include the first season after the NBA/ABA merger, the lockout-shortened seasons of 1999 and 2011, and the year that several players were stripped of their talent in the middle of the season by aliens who wanted to play the Looney Toons for the fate of the cartoon world.
Still, I think the specter of COVID, the continued protests against racism, and the condensed schedule vault the 2020-2021 campaign into one of the top spots. Games were canceled, players had to sit out. “Health and safety protocols” became a common phrase for NBA fans and people making excuses for ghosting people on Tinder. The unique scheduling intricacies intended to limit travel had an unquantifiable effect on competitiveness. That being said, we have somehow reached the end of the regular season. We haven’t had a postponed game since February 28. The level of competition has actually ramped up here at the end, rather than the standard dwindling at the end of the season.
The main reason behind the continued high level of competition is the implementation of the Play-In Tournament. Teams in the 7-10 seeding spots in both conferences are really pushing their play to its peak, which is in direct contrast to how the end of the season often plays. The 9th and 10th seeds are usually comfortable tanking for a better draft pick. Even the 11th seeds have been putting in the effort. I have complicated feelings about the tournament, but I do not have complicated feelings about its effect on this stretch run. With one week to go, there are still a lot of important and entertaining games to play.
In case you are not familiar with the format of the Play-In Tournament, allow me to recap it quickly.
7 Seed plays 8 Seed -The winner gets the 7th seed. The loser gets to play one more game to see if they can make it.
9 Seed plays 10 Seed -The winner of this game plays the loser of the game above. Whoever wins that game gets the 8th seed.
Teams are jockeying hard to get into the 6th seed so as to not have to participate in the tournament at all. Even within the four teams involved, the effort to get into those 7 and 8 spots is real.
We have one week of games left to sort this whole thing out. The following are the five storylines that I find most interesting as we head into this home stretch.
The 11 seeds
I love that the hope of the tournament affected teams this far down in the standings. The Pelicans and the Bulls sit in these spots right now. Technically, they still have a chance to make it in the final week. And technically, I could meet and fall in love with someone on Tinder. But we all know that isn’t happening. The Pelicans’ hope sank like the Titanic when Zion got hurt. The Bulls would need to win their remaining 4 games and the surging Wizards would need to lose all of theirs. Still, the fact remains that they were compelled to battle until the very last week of the season. That is a success.
Stars Align In The West
The Lakers are in a dog fight with Portland to soar above the play-in games. The Mavericks look like a good bet to keep their hold on the 5th seed. They have a fairly easy schedule for this last week. Portland faces the Jazz, the Suns, and the Nuggets, aka the top three seeds in the West. Yikes! The Lakers have the Rockets, Pacers, and Pelicans. Soooo, not yikes. Portland has a one-game lead on the Lakers as of writing this. The Lakers are struggling to stay healthy. LeBron’s ankle injury has had truly league-altering ramifications. Four of the most exciting stars in the league in Luka, Dame, LeBron, and AD are all involved in this jostling. Incredible.
Regardless of who ends up in that 7 spot in the West, the Play-In games will be very watchable. That’s an understatement. It’s like getting a microdose of March Madness with professional players. We’ll be able to watch some studs right away. Those players I just mentioned will be joined by One-Game-One-Shot-King-Of-My-Universe-Take-Me-Back-To-2008 Steph Curry, as well as Ja Morant and a young, fun Grizzlies team. (Also the Spurs, sure, but I titled this section “marketability”….)
It’s odd that both teams that played in the finals last year, the Lakers and the Heat, are facing the fate of the Play-In Tournament. Miami is currently two games ahead of the Celtics for the 6th seed. The Heat beat the Celtics on Sunday and play again tomorrow as well. In this final week, Miami also faces the 76ers and the Bucks.
Boston has an easier schedule including games against the Cavaliers and the Timberwolves. The Wizards are working their magic and no one wants to face them right now. Russell Westbrook has turned into a human wrecking ball and is overpowering opponents. If a matchup materializes with Boston, the Celtics haven’t proven they have the fight to pull that out.
The Top Spots
With all of the uncertainty around the Play-In Tournament, the remaining playoff teams may feel a bit left out of the excitement. Don’t worry, there are some fascinating ramifications there too. In the East, the Bucks and Nets are currently battling for the 2nd seed. That would be the team to play the 7th seed. Without knowing who that team will be, will this increase or decrease the competition?
In a normal season, teams know their matchup and can start to think ahead. Now, coaching staffs have to prepare for a couple of options until the games play out. I would still want to play a team coming off the tournament rather than not since I imagine the intensity of those games will have an emotional and physical toll. That brings me back to my point about the Bucks and the Nets. Will they be trying to get that seed to play a team that has already been through a one-game gauntlet? Or are the Nets more interested in making sure their players are as healthy as they can be? See, there’s still some drama!
The final part I noticed about the top spots are some of the teams that are avoiding the extra game altogether. If you had told me a year ago that this would be the setup for the start of the playoffs and the Suns and the Knicks would not be involved, I would have totally believed you. However, the reason I would have believed you would have been that I probably expected both teams to miss the playoffs entirely! Yet, these teams have been two of the biggest success stories of the year.
The Suns are charging towards first place in the west, battling the Jazz down to the wire. The Knicks are solidly in the middle of the pack. Can you name one player other than Julius Randle on their roster? OK, I’ll give you R.J. Barrett. How about another one? It’s incredible what they’ve been able to do. I wanted to make sure I give the proper congratulations to those two squads. I’ll even make sure they get the graphic spot. (Please see the top of the post).
That sums up the top five things I’ll be keeping an eye on as we head into this week. I am pumped for meaningful basketball. The pre-playoffs are a thing now! Join me in savoring this week. Do you have other thoughts on the upcoming playoffs? Hit us up on social media. Have a great day!